Lump Sum

The first time I heard the term “lumpia,” I thought it was a quirky insult. As in, “yo mama’s so lumpia…” and fill in the blank. The real insult is that lumpia aren’t well known throughout the US to begin with. Culinary trendsetters keep proclaiming that Filipino food will be the next big craze, year after year, but I just haven’t seen it take hold as promised. While you can’t walk a full city block without passing at least one pizza parlor or sushi bar, you’d be lucky to stumble across a single Filipino restaurant in an entire metropolitan area.

What gives? Why aren’t kids begging their parents for sizzling platters as a Friday night treat? Where are all the long-simmered stews and punchy, vinegar-spiked sauces? So many of the classic staples share Malaysian, Indonesian, Indian, Chinese, Spanish, and even American influences, so why don’t they translate the same way overseas?

Lumpia should be considered the gateway dish, an easy introduction to this true melting pot of flavors. Like common spring rolls or egg rolls, the concept itself is highly flexible. Fillings can be either sweet or savory, bundled together in thin wheat wrappers, and served either fresh or deep-fried. Let’s be real though: The best, and most popular sort are fried to crispy, golden-brown perfection, and dunked into a sour, salty, and savory dip of vinegar and soy sauce.

This particular recipe comes from Chef Reina Montenegro of Nick’s Kitchen, one of the very few vegan Filipino eateries I know of, boasting two locations in San Francisco proper. Traditionally, the most popular sort of lumpia combines vegetables like bean sprouts, string beans, and carrots with cheap cuts of meat, but you’d never miss the animal addition here. Mushroom powder makes up for the umami essence in spades, and honestly, any filling would be delicious once anointed with bubbling hot oil.

Take a bite while the rolls are still steaming hot, caramelized exteriors instantly shattering upon impact, and you’ll immediately understand the appeal. You can eat with your hands, call it a snack or a meal, and easily convince picky children to eat a rainbow of vegetables.

If this is your first introduction to Filipino cuisine, welcome to the party. Next up should be Chef Reina’s famous, unbelievably eggless tofu sissig silog for breakfast,… If I could ever needle that secret formula out of her. You work on those lumpia, and I’ll work on that subsequent recipe.

Continue reading “Lump Sum”

See-Food

Cooking during quarantine has forced me to get a bit more creative than usual for my daily sustenance. All those years of looking for unconventional substitutes is paying off, in ways I could never expect.

No more tomato paste? Well you’re in luck, because I just found a few packets of ketchup in my bag! Bottle of soy sauce ran dry? There’s miso for that!

It’s also done wonders to clean out my stock of specialty goods, the rare, random oddities that caught my eye while shopping, but seemed too precious to simply consume without fanfare.

So, as supplies dwindle and lines to enter grocery stores continue to wrap around the building and down the block, this day seems like just the special occasion to dig in. The time has finally come to thaw out the strange, slippery, bouncy jumbo prawns to make something great.

What does one make with chewy konjac-based seafood and a limited pantry? Luck was on my side, as I had just the idea waiting in the wings. Simultaneously cleaning out my digital pantry, this was a concept I had outlined ages ago, saved away in the “to-make” folder, and promptly forgotten about. Though I didn’t have the anticipated crowd of party revelers to impress, when my long-forgotten formula for meatless shrimp toast finally came to fruition, it was no less magnificent to behold.

Hatosi (蝦多士 in Cantonese) literally translates to “shrimp toast,” a beloved party bite or snack enjoyed as a savory happy hour staple, and beyond. Traditionally made with crisp sandwich bread cradling a layer of shrimp puree flavored with ginger, garlic, and scallion, it’s coated in sesame seeds before being deep-fried. Briny, umami, with just the right amount of salty-greasy satisfaction, such a foolproof preparation could appeal even to seafood haters.

Nothing against the conventional approach, but I’m not about to pull out a bubbling vat of oil for this party of one, so I baked mine instead. Healthier, easier, and more economical, since I can keep my reserves of oil full for another day.

While shortages remain a very real fact of life across the globe, I realize that this recipe is pie in the sky for the large majority of readers, no matter how bottomless your food stockpile. Even on a good day, it’s a kind of crazy amalgamation of quirky ingredients. All we can do is work with what we’ve got, and right now, this is what’s keeping me cooking. Rather than offer up alternatives that won’t even come close to the intended effect, I want you to read this with optimism, as a promise of more to come. Save it for better days, keep growing your “to-make” folder, and keep dreaming of unrestricted abundance. Sometime soon, I hope we can all raise a triangle together, and literally toast to good health for all.

Continue reading “See-Food”

Working for Peanuts

Grazing my way through the day, it can be hard to sit down to a proper meal. Time constraints often create an imposing barrier to reasonable meal prep, leaving me at the mercy of my pantry when hunger strikes. Granted, there are just as many instances where my only excuse is a basic, child-like craving for snack foods, conventional lunch or dinnertime fare be damned.

For anyone else affected by these same cravings, take heart in knowing that you’re not alone, and that there is a cure.

Peanut sadeko, a Nepalese appetizer that satisfies like an entree and tastes like a snack, doesn’t translate easily to a typical American eating agenda. Some call it salad, but of course there are no leafy greens and scant vegetables, so my best advice is to enjoy it with an appetite for adventure, anytime it you see fit.

Biting, lingering heat from pungent mustard oil envelops warm peanuts, mixed with a hefty dose of ginger, jalapeno, and chaat masala for a savory, spicy blend. “Sadeko,” sometimes romanized as “sandheko,” simply refers to the basic seasoning that blends these sharp, distinctive, yet somehow harmonious flavors together, infusing a wide range of recipes throughout the Himalayas. Though nontraditional, crispy roasted edamame join the party in my personal mix for a resounding cacophony of crunch in every mouthful.

Unexpected, undefinable, yet undeniably addictive, it hits all the right notes for instant gratification.

Continue reading “Working for Peanuts”

Say Cheese!

Names, dates, phone numbers: my memory fails me on these specifics nine times out of ten, embarrassing me to no end when I’m introduced to the same person for the seventh time. The one birthday I will always remember, of all things, is for someone I’ve never even met. Amy, the inspiration for Amy’s Kitchen, shares my same birth year, making it even more astonishing to recognize over 30 years of vegetarian and vegan meals made available to the masses, all from such humble beginnings. Those frozen samosa wraps, tamale pies (RIP), and vegetable barley soups saved my life back in high school, before I could even operate a toaster without causing a conflagration.

Where so many brands have failed and folded, Amy’s Kitchen has grown in leaps and bounds, expanding their dairy-free options exponentially while still maintaining high quality standards, and an endless hunger for both adventurous flavors and down-home comfort foods. Breaking into 2020 with a boom, Amy’s Kitchen has just unleashed a new line of ooey, gooey, cheezy vegan entrées, including two pasta dishes and two Mexican-inspired options. They’re all going into regular rotation here as emergency dinners at Casa BitterSweet, but if I had to play favorites, my money would be on the Vegan Broccoli & Cheeze Bake.

I’m rather picky about my pasta, to put it lightly, and I was stunned to realize a few bites in, going back to read the label, that these noodles were gluten-free, too. Tender, chewy, springy, the texture surpasses that of most average frozen wheat options, too. There’s no sacrifice nor compromise for accommodating such a range of dietary restriction; nothing makes it into the bowl but delicious, creamy instant gratification.⁣

You really can’t improve on perfection, by definition, but you can match it on the same level in an equally compelling, yet wholly unique way. That’s where these fool-proof party starts come in.

Baked, not fried, to golden brown and crispy brilliance, this is the halfway homemade food hack that could very well become the stuff of legends. Better than mozzarella sticks, they won’t start to congeal and lose their luster the moment they hit the table. The breading ensures easy prep, no culinary skills required. Banishing greasy fingers by adding no extra oil means you could be saving your sofas- and stomachs- from unnecessary anguish later, too.

Tender spiral noodles and organic broccoli, bathed in luscious, creamy vegan cheese sauce burst forth from their crisp breaded shells, a rush of comfort and savory satisfaction in every bite. This is one unforgettable finger food that will serve you well for many happy years, too.

Continue reading “Say Cheese!”

Easy Brie-zy Entertaining

What’s that I hear, off in the distance? Could it be the sound of winter boots storming down the driveway? The staccato knock of knuckles against the front door? The unmistakable chime of the doorbell, ringing out as clear as day: YOUR GUESTS HAVE ARRIVED!?

Ah yes, it sounds like the holidays are here again! Trickling in slowly, gathering in greater numbers with every passing minute, the kitchen swells with sounds of merriment, laughter and banter ricocheting off the walls. Cue the music, crank the oven, and break out the appetizers; it’s time to dazzle with more than sparkling tinsel lining the hallways.

Play your cards right, and one spectacular starter will set the whole party in motion. The pros know that it’s only possible by keeping it simple, prepping ahead, and using the best ingredients. That’s why I’m dropping this show-stopping wheel of homemade vegan brie, supple and soft, crowned with the bold combination of tart raspberries and balsamic vinegar. If that doesn’t kick off the festivities with applause, at least, perhaps you’ve invited the wrong audience.

Buttery, creamy, melting at room temperature, this brie isn’t a dead-ringer for its dairy counterpoint, but it doesn’t need to imitate exactly when it can exceed that experience. Reaching into my pantry for an easy accompaniment, bottles of Alessi White Balsamic Raspberry Blush Vinegar and Alessi Raspberry Infused White Balsamic Reduction inspired this unconventional, yet compelling combination. Melding that tangy, fresh flavor with sweet whole berries in a lightly simmered compote created a heady aroma that no one could resist.

I can count on Alessi ingredients to raise the bar on everyday staples, no matter the recipe or occasion. Family owned and operated for 72 years, these essentials have stood the test of time. They’ve been stocking grocery store shelves across the country for as long as I can remember, that’s for sure. Going straight to the source reaps the greatest rewards, though, since orders over $20 ship free and no where else can you find such a wide section of authentic Italian specialties. As if that wasn’t enough, if you shop directly through Alessi.com and enter the code HANNAHK at checkout, you’ll get 15% off your order! This code is good for 1 use per customer, until December 31.

Both the cheese and chutney can be made up to a full week in advance, so there’s no need to stress on the big day. Just take off the chill as conversations warm and spirits flow. The savory wedges will melt in your mouth, and any extraneous worries will melt away. Now that’s what makes a happy holiday.

Continue reading “Easy Brie-zy Entertaining”

If it Ain’t Got That Spring, Then it Don’t Mean a Thing

Fleeting warm breezes tease on cool mornings, while sporadic rays of sun manage to break through cloud cover, gently kissing still frozen earth. Tempting, taunting, spring arrives in maddening snippets too short to savor at first. Right when you begin to peel back layers of heavy sweaters and fold up thick comforters, winter rages back in with a vengeance, more brutal than before, crystallizing budding sprouts into frosted popsicles or piling on a fresh coat of ice, depending on your locale. Every time it seems certain that the seasonal shift has taken place, hopes soar high on those fresh winds of change, and crash hard like a kite with no string, back down into the forbidding frozen tundra.

For the first time in recent memory, the calendar date actually seems to align with the weather. Spring resonates through dewy grasses, shouting its arrival from the rooftops of micro gardens across the urban landscape. At least in the bay area, the changing of the guard has officially occurred, and I’m more than ready to reap the benefits.

Spring is all about fresh greens in so many forms. Tender, sweet curlicues branch out from between soft pea leaves, one of the best if underappreciated parts of the whole plant. Though it’s a tough sacrifice to cut these vines down in their youth, before pods appear bearing those toothsome green caviar, the greens themselves are a true delicacy that are worth a splurge. Typically found in Asian cuisine, stir-fried very simply with a splash of wine and a handful of garlic at the most, their full potential has yet to be realized in western culture.

Borrowing inspiration from Spanish tapas, the term “cazuela” simply indicates the terra cotta cooking vessel for the dish, much like you would refer to a tagine. Contents of that pot vary widely across countries, always encompassing some sort of vegetable, though sometimes meat as well. The version from Barcelona Restaurant, based on spinach and chickpeas, inspired my springtime spin-off.

Deceptively rich and complex but full of verdant, simple vegetables, think of it like a warm spread that falls somewhere between hummus, pea puree, and spinach dip. Masses of fresh pea leaves wilt down into a concentrated tangle, amplified by the fruit of the pods themselves with a garlicky, cumin-forward taste that will linger with each bite.

If Mother Nature remains stubbornly resistant to embracing a timely spring conversion in your area, sunflower sprouts or baby spinach might just be able to suffice in a pinch… But the best things remain for those who wait. Ask around at local farmers markets, search ethnic markets for dòu miáo (豆苗,) or head to the backyard and get growing. Though it may sound like great lengths to go for just a handful of tiny sprouts, you’re only 1 – 3 weeks away from the best taste of the season, and it won’t get any fresher than that.

Continue reading “If it Ain’t Got That Spring, Then it Don’t Mean a Thing”